Given the double whammy back in 2012 of Argo winning Best Picture and Skyfall making $1 billion worldwide, a resurgence of the spy genre was inevitable. This year alone has already seen its fair share of genre entries, from farcical send-ups of the genre (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy) to further entries in long running franchises (Mission Impossible, James Bond), and it was only a matter of time before a modern filmmaking master like Steven Spielberg delved into the fray. And here we have Bridge of Spies, which is poised to be a Cold War retelling of To Kill a Mockingbird, with xenophobia and reactionary American nationalism replacing institutionalized racism as the central ideological conflict du jour.
The plot centers on an inexperienced Brooklyn lawyer named James Donavan (played by Tom Hanks) who is enlisted to defend a captured and alleged Soviet spy hiding out in the US (played brilliantly by Mark Rylance). Donavan begrudgingly takes the case, much to the disapproval of his wife and many others in his social circle. Soon enough, he becomes further involved in the case than anyone else saw coming, and the less further said about the story the better. Much of the film is intent on keeping the viewer on their toes and constantly surprised, which shouldn’t be too hard if your familiarity with this period in US history is a bit shaky. This marks the fifth collaboration between Hanks and Spielberg (counting the miniseriesBand of Brothers), and each one of their previous collaborations has provided Hanks with some of the most grounded and subdued acting work of his career. Here is no exception to that trend, and Hanks effortlessly injects his everyman persona into the lead role, but it’s Mark Rylance as the convicted Soviet spy who walks away with the best performance in the film, giving an extremely subtle, understated turn and stealing every scene he’s in.
Longtime followers of Spielberg’s career will notice a clear distinction between the pulp entertainer and the would-be serious artist constantly at odds with one another, or rather working alongside each other. Following in his recent trend of more serious-minded historical films, Bridge of Spies establishes a more solemn, contemplative mood for the Cold War era (except for a few moments of Spielberg indulging in his now infamous emotional manipulation, however brief they may be), which feels far removed from the sweeping, polished War Horse of just four years prior. If anything, this film has less in common with the likes of the Bond or Bourne franchises than the underrated 2011 spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, of which I’d be very surprised to learn if Spielberg wasn’t at least a little influenced by.
As far as detractors go, only minor errors seem to plague this film, but still they merit being addressed. And oddly enough these are almost exactly the same faults that Spielberg’s previous film Lincoln also shares. Specifically, a somewhat repetitive and drawn out midsection, of scene after scene where characters sit down and discuss the situation at hand, without ever really advancing the proceedings an any noticeable way. And then there’s the epilogue, which feels not only tacked on, but is oozing with the stereotypical Spielbergian schmaltz that the film was doing such a good job of avoiding beforehand, further accentuated by composer Thomas Newman doing his best John Williams impression. These are all minor quibbles to be sure, but one has to wonder if all these minor details amounted to enough of an impact as to hold back this already great film from being a masterwork.
In a career full of outstanding films and landmark achievements, Bridge of Spies is another great film for Steven Spielberg to have added to his ever expanding oeuvre. If this film serves as nothing more than a lengthy apology by Spielberg for the similarly Soviet-themed fourth Indiana Jones installment, then apology accepted.